Archive for the ‘ literature ’ Category

My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This review was originally published at

Towards the end of the shattering first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir My Struggle, he cuts from a scene of particularly sepulchral intensity to a flashback describing his days interviewing writers for a student newspaper. On one such occasion, while interviewing the author Kjartan Fløgstad, he forgets his notepad and is forced to try to recreate the interview from memory.  But it’s impossible. Even with the questions to hand his memories of the conversation are “too vague, too imprecise”. Having called up Fløgstad for some ‘follow-up questions’ he manages to cobble together a version that seems faithful enough, and submits it to the author for review. The response reads as an ironically prescient in-joke:

“I opened it. Held the printout of the interview. It was covered with red marks and red comments in the margin. “I never said this”, I saw, “Imprecise”, I saw, “No, no, no”, I saw, “???”, I saw. “Where did you get that from?” I saw.”

Knausgaard’s six-volume tell-all has become a literary sensation in Norway, partly due to the lavish acclaim it has drawn from more bookish quarters, but mainly due to the juicy controversy stemming from its warts-and-all portrayal of Knausgaard’s family. This, the first volume to be translated into English, centers on his enigmatic father, who walked out on the family and later barricaded himself in his mother’s house and systematically drank himself to death. Knausgaard pulls no punches in laying bare the desperate squalor in which his father spent his final days, and the very public fallout with surviving members of the family over Knausgaard’s version of events has made the book an unlikely bestseller.

Prescience aside, the anecdote demonstrates the fundamental impossibility of Knausgaard’s project. If he cannot recount a single conversation without scandalizing his interlocutor with flagrant distortions and misrepresentations, what can his memoir ever be but the most arrant of fictions? Even the passage itself is a double negative, a self-cancelling invalidation. As a remembered anecdote that Knausgaard uses to demonstrate the impossibility of really remembering anything, it negates its own purported premises, even as it undermines those of the entire undertaking. This awareness of his alienation from the past underpins Knausgaard’s approach to his subject matter. He may be able to dredge up disparate fragments, images, even the odd madeleine-prompted moment of uncanny convergence, but as Thomas Bernhard’s narrator puts it in Extinction, for the most part the past – even yesterday, even the last second – is nothing but a gaping void. Memory is to a greater or lesser degree fictional, and that is before one even confronts the problematics of writing, of subjugating experience to the outrages of narrative form and the corrupting medium of language.  Knausgaard reflects:

“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” (p. 190)

Even self-knowledge becomes unreliable once it is detached from intuition, and has been assimilated into a personal narrative. Truth isn’t a question of content but of sense and feeling; an event; a verb not a noun. For Knausgaard, writing is a lie deployed in the service of exhuming and recapturing this fugitive truth. But writing muddies the water with its own manipulations and falsehoods, from the weight of usage and association to the gestures of ritual and convention, the charade of literary voice. Knausgaard thus chooses a way of ‘taking us there’ through his writing that is risky, oblique and at times disconcerting. Distrusting the tyranny of the adjective, he bases his style around flatness and matter-of-fact detail. For the most part he lets significations arise out of form and structure, the internally generated resonances and associations carried by objects themselves, rather than laying them on a plate for us through the line-by-line expressiveness of literary prose. Rather than channeling experience, Knausgaard’s dispassionate delivery more often than not serves to accentuate our distance from it:

“On the way downstairs a huge surge of tears overcame me. This time there was no question of trying to hide it. My whole chest trembled and shook, I couldn’t draw breath, deep sobs rolled through me, and my face contorted, I was completely out of control.

“Ooooooooh,” I said. “Ooooooooh.”

The subject matter sits uncomfortably with the anti-emotive, matter-of-fact style. The symptoms are simply presented in a non-hierarchical list (‘My whole chest…’), free of any of the inflective legwork we expect prose to do in order to enhance the sense of that to which it refers. Part of the uncanny effect of Knausgaard’s approach to his subject manner is this resistance to almost any kind of literary voice, rejecting its heightened sensibility on a line-by-line level and instead opting for a cumulative effect based on form rather than style. His prose rejects one of the central mechanisms of traditional literary aesthetics: enhancing and evoking subject matter through imitation. Like when Keats imitates the sticky sibilance of an overripe apple, or Dickens or Joyce modulate their sentences to evoke fog or snow. Knausgaard simply doesn’t bother with any of this, which becomes a kind of oppositional statement in itself. His stubbornly deadpan delivery accentuates the rupture between now and then, the void that separates the historical self from the self that tries to recapture experience and recreate it through prose. Yet this is not the mannered, deliberately enigmatic Dirty Realist minimalism of Hemingway and Carver, or even the offhand garrulousness of Kerouac. It lies somewhere much closer to the tone of Imre Kertesz’s remarkable novel Fateless, in which the narrator revisits Auschwitz and rather than emoting just ingenuously describes what he sees.

In Knausgaard the resistance to emotiveness is not merely a way of confronting the ineffability of trauma without reducing it to the forms and codes of habit, though this is undoubtedly partly where he is coming from. It is also down to a more general, pervasive sense of the impossibility of writing, of which the recollection of trauma is merely an extreme example. It is much more obviously impossible to convey the actual sense of Auschwitz than it is to convey the actual sense of the dinner-table atmosphere of one’s childhood, or the feeling of playing in a rubbish band, or making a pot of coffee or lighting a cigarette; there is much more at stake in its being subsumed into the normalizing network of shared association. But it is ultimately an amplification of the same incongruity. The sense of a moment passes through words like so many grains of sand through despairing fingers. If Knausgaard is to overcome this problem he must do so obliquely.

What does it mean to say that Knausgaard’s artistic effects arise from form and structure rather than style? Take, for example, the line that begins the passage that deals with his father’s death and its aftermath, the real subject matter of the book: “I was almost thirty years old when I saw a dead body for the first time”. This comes on page 222, but it is really the book’s beginning. The events that the narrative concerns – Knausgaard’s confrontation with the squalid house in which his father died, and his attempts to make sense of the events that drove him to what was in effect a prolonged suicide – are all to come. Yet Knausgaard prefaces this all with 222 pages, consisting of a mixture of saturnine overtures, philosophical asides, quotidian detail and fractured anecdotes from his youth, that can at times seem slightly directionless. However, in retrospect it becomes clear that by doing so he creates the conditions under which the objects and events that the main narrative concerns can become meaningful, independent of the stylistic shortcuts of a more conventionally literary treatment. We can well imagine a lyrical memoir in which the above sentence serves as a killer opening. It might continue with evocative prose that transports us inside the mind of the observer, creating resonance and an illusion of empathy. Yet this is not how Knausgaard continues. He merely dispassionately describes what happens:

“It was the summer of 1998, a July afternoon, in a chapel in Kristiansand. My father had died. He was laid out on a table in the middle of the room, the sky was overcast, the light in the room dull, outside the window a lawn mower was slowly circling around a lawn.”

The significance of the scene arises from the painfully accumulated sensibility we have derived from the previous 222 pages, insidiously, accretively drawing us into the author’s way of looking at the world, his many-sided relationship with his father, the ineffable web of significations contained within the corpse laid out on the table before us and its relationship to the observer. Knausgaard could try and communicate something of this through evocative prose, perhaps using free indirect discourse to try to recreate his mental reaction to what he observes. Yet he knows that this would be a fraudulent way of recreating the ‘there’ of the moment. Instead, through its structure and painfully assembled detail, the novel cultivates a sensibility whereby the signification is able to arise, to some extent, out of the objects themselves. Hence, when Karl Ove and Yngwe pull up outside of the house in which his father drank himself to death, all he needs to do is flatly describe what they see:

“The garden was completely overgrown. The grass was knee-high, like a meadow, grayish-yellow in color, flattened in some places by the rain. It had spread everywhere, covering all the beds, I wouldn’t have been able to see the flowers had I not known where they were…”

Knausgaard doesn’t tell us what he is thinking, because he knows the structure of the novel does that for us. We immediately cast our minds back to our first encounter with his father digging his immaculately maintained garden twenty years previously, a cold, rigidly disciplinarian figure. The contrast with the dissolute slob who drank himself to death does not need to be articulated through high-flung phrases or hand-wringing lamentation; Knausgaard subtly creates a textual structure in which it arises out of the detail itself.

The fault line separating autobiography and fiction was explored by some of the great writers of the 20th century, from Nabokov and Cendrars to Bernhard and Coetzee, though the obvious source text for Knausgaard’s epic is Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Knausgaard’s memoir is a Proustian undertaking not just in the most obvious sense of it being a gargantuan six-volume novelistic examination of the author’s memories, but also in the sense that it tells the story of how it came to be written. It remains to be seen exactly where the remaining five volumes will take us, but even as a standalone Knausgaard’s narrative is circular in the sense that it creates the conditions for its own coming into being in the reader. It engenders the requisite sensibility in the reader who has finished the novel whereby he is able to comprehend something of the full meaning of the author who began writing it. In this sense it is a book that reinforces the Nabokovian diktat that we cannot read, only re-read. And one of the great gifts of this devastating, urgent and original masterpiece is that its resonant last line invites you to do just that: turn back to the first page and start over, all the better equipped to make sense of the journey.

Scenes From Provincial Life, by JM Coetzee

‘Autobiography as defacement’, my piece on JM Coetzee’s trilogy of autobiographical works Scenes From Provincial Life, has been published over at 3:AM Magazine.


Whom do we hear speaking in the following sentence?  “For a man of his age, fifty two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. The self-justifying tone of the opening clause, the rhetorical qualification ‘to his mind’, the telling definite article in ‘the problem of sex’, suggest an inflection on the part of the character in question. But the journalistic parenthesis ‘fifty two, divorced’, to say nothing of the fact that it is written in the third person, sounds more like the author spatchcocking in some background information to chivvy his narrative along. The voice is neither straightforwardly that of the author nor that of the character. It occupies, though the use of Flaubert’s style indirect libre, a space between the two that allows both for critical detachment and internal access.

The above, the opening sentence of Disgrace, might be cited in a creative writing course as a textbook example of a modern literary style (though the uses to which Coetzee puts it are anything but). Coetzee retains a reputation for this kind of minimal, slightly frosty precision, surgically dissecting his characters while maintaining all along an unflinching distance and restraint. Passages such as the above play out the uncertain relationship between the narrator and narrated in their every word, and this dynamic has been one of the key points of tension throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre. Indeed, his very first novel, Dusklands, begins with a narrator who labours under the gaze of a military supervisor named Coetzee. (First sentence: “Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay”).

Read the full piece here 

Spurious, by Lars Iyer

How fitting that a book called Spurious, that started life as a blog, should be a frontrunner for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. This not being the Booker, Spurious is neither a state-of-the-age doorstopper, a fictional resurrection of a misunderstood historical personage, nor a parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey. It is instead a series of blogpost-sized snippets following the repetitive interactions of a tragi-comic double-act – the down-at-heel narrator Lars, and his hilariously harsh friend W.

Lars and W. are relatively undistinguished philosophy tutors at English universities, and both are united by a feeling of utter inadequacy, irrelevance, stupidity and, well, spuriousness in the face of their intellectual heroes. They meet, talk, drink, despair and console, but mostly W. just mercilessly – and hilariously – abuses Lars. In one particularly funny passage, W. compares their friendship with that of Blanchot and Levinas – except whereas the French philosophers exchanged correspondence of depth, significance and high seriousness, W. and Lars draw each other pictures of cocks on the internet. Their problem, W. notes, is that neither of them is a Kafka – they are both Brods.

Spurious is an un-English book in several ways – partly because of its complete lack of interest in the mode of mainstream, lyrical realist fiction that is so dominant in this country, but also due to its subject matter and tone. W. and Lars’s heroes stem from the tradition of continental modernism – from Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot and Beckett to Bela Tarr – and they are infused with a very European anxiety. The book also owes a great deal to Thomas Bernhard, who is unmentioned but whose presence is unmistakable throughout.

Following the distancing technique employed by Bernhard in novels such as The Loser and Old Masters, the entire narrative is reported to us by a narrator (Lars), who is the passive figure in most of the interactions. Thus the book consists for the most part of the thoughts and opinions of W., though the only narrative access we have to him is second hand. This introduces an aspect of what James Wood calls ‘double unreliability’ – we know that W. has been rewritten by Lars, but we don’t know to what extent. As in Bernhard, the characters’ voices are subsumed in the act of narration, reinforcing the insurmountable distance between art and life, and the fundamental impossibility of writing.

Indeed it is this sense of distance and impossibility that is perhaps the central current running through Spurious. Lars and W. are anachronistic figures chasing a seriousness and authenticity of intellectual experience that seems to be no longer attainable. Even their despair is ironic, clichéd and absurd – the very possibility of authentic thought seems to have withered and died, suffocated by the intellectual giants in relation to whom their failure is assured.  As with Bernhard and Beckett, Spurious is pulled along by gallows humour, but the bleakness and despair underpinning it is real too.

Spurious will probably remain a cult book that appeals primarily to those with the sort of intellectual interests that lead them to empathise with Lars and W. That said, for all its acknowledged spuriousness and self-mockery, it is a book that responds to serious questions in a way that is honest, thoughtful and deceptively profound. It is, in the best possible sense, the opposite of the sort of book that normally wins the Booker Prize. That it will have to make do with that award’s tongue-in-cheek inversion is therefore entirely appropriate.

Zone, by Mathias Enard

There are books that make a big deal out of narrative form, and books for which it is the elephant in the room. In the broadest terms, the conflict might be expressed like this: realism in fiction isn’t actually anything like reality, so the kind of novel that blithely tries to kid us that it is ‘holding a mirror up to the world’ and ‘addressing the prevailing issues of the day’ actually does nothing of the sort. These books may be well written, but they are also in an inescapable sense limited, redundant, outmoded, disingenuous. But an inverse parody also opens itself up: books that make this limitation their only subject – narcissistic narratives that, rather than mirroring reality, are fixated by their own reflection – run the risk of becoming solipsistic, introverted and self-obsessed.

Zone, the fourth novel by French academic Mathias Enard, is in a very obvious sense a book that makes a big deal out of narrative form: it is written in a gargantuan stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence that is interrupted only by 24 chapter breaks, and three excerpts from the (utterly conventional) novel that our subject, from whose eyes we peer and whose thoughts we inhabit, intermittently reads. So the form of the book self-consciously is its content; rather than fading into the background like Flaubert’s omniscient narrator (present everywhere but visible nowhere), the mode of delivery insinuates itself throughout the novel as the dominant thematic thread. The subject, Francis Servain Mirkovic, a dissipated French-Croatian secret services agent and veteran of the Balkans War, is on a train journey from Milan to Rome. The narrative consists of his thoughts in real-time, each chapter consisting of one of the 24 train stops en route. Along the way he will, in fragmented and disjointed fashion, recollect, mentally skim and ruminate upon events that synthesise the personal and the historical, merging the disarray of his own situation, his unacknowledged drink problem (he is ruinously hungover on the day in question, and his thoughts have the sort of visceral, oneiric lucidity that often follows a particularly savage binge), to shards of horror recollected from the war, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of conflicts that have beset the Mediterranean ‘Zone’ that gives the book its title.

Enard has stated that he wanted to write a ‘contemporary epic’, and Zone is that rare beast – a novel that is simultaneously narcissistic and panoramic, outward-looking while locked into the consciousness of an individual, cut off from the outside world by his frontal cranium. Zone’s 24 chapters imitate the structure of Homer’s Iliad, a modernist reworking of the martial epic, but its fragmentary, anecdotal structure equally recalls another classical paradigm – Ovid’s Metamorphoses (though Ovid’s Benny Hill approach to the mischievous, fun-loving sexual violence of Zeus and co is converted to the brutality of modern, systematic war rape, a recurring preoccupation).


Regardless of your definition, modernism is a large and disparate tradition, and Zone can be placed in a Joycean maximalist camp that is at odds with the Beckettean minimalist school. Beckett famously stated that Joyce had gone as far as one could go in the direction of addition, and his moment of artistic direction came when he realised that his own path was one of subtraction. The conflict concerns the fundamental approach to the intersection of consciousness and narrative; in the loosest terms, whereas the Joyce of Ulysses adapts narrative form to consciousness – in a way that, while virtuosic, remains relatively assured of the validity of its methods – Beckett investigates the impossibility of reconciling the chaos of consciousness with the fixity of literary narrative. Whereas Joyce purveys a kind of ‘realism of consciousness’ (in the terms of Eric Auerbach) in which he attempts to show that he can write about everything, Beckett confronts the impossibility of actually writing about anything.

Thomas Bernhard’s novels also often take place in real-time inside the mind of a central character, but they are relentlessly self-questioning, self-ironising, and impossible to pin down. Instead, like the symbolic tapestry Joyce builds from the framework of Homer’s Odyssey, one feels that in Zone the form is primarily rhetorical, a kind of commentary on the epic paradigm. Moving in opposition to the syllabic regularity of Homer’s Alexandrines, Zone rhetorically evokes the formlessness of contemporary experience, the breakdown of the unified historical narrative in contrast to the neat structures and symmetry of the classical mythological imagination.

Yet the chaos is adumbrated by the rigidity and order of its formal outline. In a sense, it is a form defined by its artificiality, as it follows the ineluctable motion and interconnected straight lines of the rail network; the very rhythm of the train as it moves from stop to stop mediates the pace of the narrative. In this, Zone is a throwback to an earlier wave of modernism, when the novel was still searching for new formal possibilities rather than facing up to its own formal impossibility, and when the vogue technique for doing so was montage, which is essentially what Enard’s method amounts to.

Within the history of modernist aesthetics, montage carries an ideological baggage of its own. Georg Lukacs famously equated the montage aesthetics of Joyce and Doblin with an irrationalism whose logical conclusion was fascism, in opposition the realism of Thomas Mann (who, incidentally, most of us now would think of as a modernist). For Lukacs, realism addressed the ‘objective totality’ of his historical age, a Marxist aesthetic value stemming from the dictum that ‘the modes of production of every society form a whole’. Montage was socially irresponsible, decadent, solipsistic.


Enard overcomes this solipsistic impulse through the use of a rather too-good-to-be-true protagonist, upgrading from the Joycean everyman, with his limited historical understanding and quotidian concerns, to an international man of mystery whose thoughts naturally cover the political and historical ground that Enard really wants to address, while avoiding the faux objectivity of the Tolstoyan summary narrative eye. This allows Enard to largely ignore the likely limits of individual historical awareness and thus regain by stealth some of the panoramic scope traded in along with 19th Century omniscience.

In a sense Enard is having his cake and eating it, checking verisimilitude at the door by constructing a best-case-scenario protagonist whose perspective has little relation to common experience. Sure, Mirkovic is padded out with a personal dimension of sorts (he drinks too much and sleeps around from time to time, suffers from the odd bout of post-traumatic stress), but essentially he is a figure of pure fantasy – or put another way, he is a rhetorical figure, just as Enard’s narrative is ultimately a rhetorical form. Despite appearances, the ultimate aim of Enard’s run-on sentence is not psychological verisimilitude. This is reflected in the manner of his prose, which rejects the disjunctive form of Leopold Bloom’s broken phrases for a modulated flow whose rhythm chugs on like the motion of the train; it is more Daedalus than Bloom, and more stylised and coherent than any 500-page train of thought could ever really be. There is evidently a limit to what Enard is willing to concede to verisimilitude, and perhaps this is a decision informed by an acknowledgement of the limits of the stream of consciousness technique; as Beckett discovered, there is only so far that prose can go towards recreating consciousness. Prose is still prose, and consciousness is still consciousness. Realism of consciousness is ultimately no less doomed to failure than old-fashioned Balzacian realism.

As if to show his full hand, Enard underlines the artifice of his narrative through the use of every 19th century realist’s favourite trick: coincidence. At the beginning of the novel, just before Mirkovic boards the train, a tramp offers his hand, saying ‘comrade one last handshake before the end of the world’, an event which sets Mirkovic’s fevered mind in motion and sparks the narrative that we read. Enard lays his rhetorical cards on the table by repeating the phrase to bring his narrative to a halt, flaunting the gap between what we have just read and reality (“he suddeny offers me a cigarette, he says so my friend one last smoke before the end? One last smoke before the end of the world”).

I’ll admit I was in two minds about this excessively neat ending, but I think I’ll let Enard get away with it as a means of bringing the rhetorical nature of the exercise to the surface. In a sense Enard constructs a form that gives him the scope to combine the panoramic ambition of realism with the constraints of subjectivity, and in doing so weaves a dense symbolic pattern that implicates its form into its thematic concerns in a satisfying and sophisticated manner. It would be tempting but too easy to merely contrast the stream-of-consciousness narrative we read with the highly formulaic, conventional realist war novel that Mirkovic dips into on three occasions during the narrative, with the implication that one is somehow real whereas the other is not. In fact, by sandwiching his modernist narrative between a big juicy realist coincidence, Enard acknowledges that this form is in its own way just as false and constructed as any other. But in Enard’s hands it is alive with rhetorical and symbolic possibilities.

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

Old Masters is an equation without a solution. Thomas Bernhard is an author who habitually treads the invisible line between plausibility and caricature, the insightful and the ridiculous. Everything in the two of his novels that I have so far read (The Loser and Old Masters, though I am currently mid-way through Correction and have by this point pretty much resolved to read them all in reasonably quick succession) refuses to be pinned down, or to fit into a stable category. In Old Masters this polysemy is encoded at every level, and results in a narrative whose every word refuses to be attributed to an established character or perspective, to be reliably ingenuous or disingenuous, or to confirm or deny its own seriousness.

The novel is based around form rather than plot, and its elaborate narrative framing generates its effects. Atzbacher, the narrator, goes to an art gallery and has a conversation with a friend of his called Reger. That, in a manner of speaking, is pretty much all that ‘happens’ – so far so straightforward.  But here’s where it gets complicated. As in The Loser, the story is recounted pretty much in real time, taking the form of the narrator’s recollection of the thoughts that he had on the day in question.  However, while The Loser is narrated in the first person, Old Masters, through the use of two words in its opening sentence, disrupts the relationship between story and storyteller:

Although I had arranged to meet Reger at the Kunsthistoriches Museum at half-past eleven, I arrived at the agreed spot at half-past ten in order, as I had for some time decided to do, to observe him, for once, from the most ideal angle possible and undisturbed, Atzbacher writes.

We are immediately confronted with a category problem. Until its final two words, the sentence presents the reader with relatively few issues. We’re used to this set-up: a narrator figure is telling us a story about something that happened to him in the past. Along the way there will probably be characters and events. He will probably give us his opinions about people and things, express his emotions and feelings, and, if we’re really lucky, he will unwittingly reveal, through the author’s clever use of words, things about himself that he isn’t even aware he is revealing. Perhaps this chain of events, and the way in which he relates it to us, will hold the key to why the narrator is who he really is. We may learn something from this.

But hang on a minute, what does this “Atzbacher writes” mean? Whom can we pin it to, and can we even trust it? We can fairly easily adjust our critical sense to deal with a scenario wherein what we read is being written by a character called Atzbacher (we’ve all read epistolary novels, after all), but does Atzbacher write “Atzbacher writes”? This is a question without an answer. Is Thomas Bernhard reading out to us, as it were, the document that Atzbacher has written? The present tense “Atzbacher writes” carries its own ambiguity. It could be Thomas Bernhard the novelist parenthetically interjecting (though an actual parenthesis, or perhaps even an asterixed note at the bottom of the page, would have helped make this more clear) to inform us that what we are reading is, fictively, a document written by a character called Atzbacher. But then it could equally be part of the plot. We use the present tense to describe what a character ‘does’ in the book – so is Thomas Bernhard the novelist writing a novel in which a character called Atzbacher is currently, in the fictional ‘now’ of the novel, writing what we are reading? Do these words – all of the words in the book – belong to a character called Atzbacher or a writer called Thomas Bernhard?

The polysemy of the narrative is thus ensured from the outset, but becomes increasingly complicated due to the relationship between the two central characters, Atzbacher and Reger. Bernhard is fond of using narrative removal strategies that prevent us from straightforwardly pinning the voice and opinions of the narrative to a given character at a given moment. In this we can see his major influence on W.G Sebald, who in this country remains a more widely read and revered figure. Sebald’s Bernhardian novel Austerlitz consists mostly of a narrator figure recounting the thoughts and opinions of a character called Austerlitz, as they were related to him in a series of conversations. Similarly, in Old Masters, nearly the entire novel consists of the thoughts and opinions of Reger – mostly wild tirades against every aspect of Austrian culture and society – reported to us by Atzbacher.

But in Bernhard this relationship is even more perverse, intertwined and multi-layered. The voices of Atzbacher and Reger are completely indistinguishable. When Atzbacher is narrating his own thoughts, his prose style, his emphatic use of italics, his cadence, his obsessive repetition of key words and phrases, his subject matter, and the sorts of opinions he expresses, are all completely indistinguishable from those that constitute the speech of Reger (as he reports it to us). We can seemingly draw one of two conclusions from this. A). Atzbacher is completely colonised by Reger’s language and attitudes, and merely serves as a mouthpiece for his perspective. Or, B). The only access we have to Reger is through Atzbacher’s words, so he is in fact merely projecting his own perspective onto Reger. Reger, to all intents and purposes, does not really exist. What we are reading is essentially a monologue, with Atzbacher using Reger as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Again, which of these positions is the true one is a question without an answer. Both theses are equally true and untrue. The fact that this is a piece of writing by Atzbacher rather than Bernhard imagining his internal consciousness (as he does with the narrator character in The Loser), muddies the water even further. It could be Atzbacher’s written recollection of his mental state on the day in question, thus introducing its own narrative unreliability: there is an obvious gap between the composition and continuity of Old Masters, and the flux and disorder of actual mental experience. Or alternatively, the discourse that constitutes Old Masters could just be Atzbacher’s fiction, a rhetorical staging of his views. What we know of Atzbacher at all we get second hand from Reger:

The way you can bear working for decades on a single book without publishing the least part of it, I could not do that… Have you never considered publishing at least a minor section of your work? he asked; some fragment, it all sounds so excellent, your hints about your work

Is this in fact Atzbacher’s unpublished work? We are seemingly invited to infer so, but how can he have been working on it for years previously if all of its events take place on the day in question? Is he just making it all up? Does Reger not, in fact, exist? Can we then even take his evidence as valid? Does it make logical sense to infer evidence of Reger’s non-existence from Reger himself?

As readers of fiction, we want answers to these kinds of question. Are the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw ‘real’? (Answer: no more nor less so than any of the other characters). Who really killed Karamazov? (Answer: both someone and no one). Is the ape in Kafka’s Notes on an Address to the Academy really an ape?  (Answer: no more nor less so than it is really a man). In J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character gives a lecture on Kafka’s story, in words that neatly summarize the quandary in which the truth-seeking reader is left by Old Masters:

We don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is going on in this story: whether it is about a man speaking to men or an ape speaking to apes or an ape speaking to men or a man speaking to apes (though the last is, I think, unlikely) or even just a parrot speaking to parrots. There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said “On the table stood a glass of water”, there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems. About what is going on in the lecture hall your guess is as good as mine: men and men, men and apes, apes and men, apes and apes. The lecture hall itself may be nothing but a zoo. The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming “I mean what I mean!” The dictionary that used to stand beside the Bible and Shakespeare above the fireplace, where in pious Roman homes the household gods were kept, has become just one code book among many.

The equipoise Bernhard achieves through these multiple unresolved tensions and ambiguities, is comparable to that achieved in Kafka’s story, and both bounce off our habitual critical search for answers. It is an art of not knowing rather than knowing, a riddle without an answer, an equation without a solution. It is nonsense masquerading as sense. And this, as Reger/Atzbacher/Berhard tells us, is the ultimate fate of all art:

We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous. If you take the trouble, for once, to read Goethe more intently than usual, you will ultimately find that what you read is ridiculous, no matter what it is, you only have to read it more often than usual, it will inevitably become ridiculous and even the cleverest thing is ultimately a nonsense.

What ever happened to Victorian realism?

What is literary fiction? This question is more semantic than philosophical – what is the nature of the books to which the term ‘literary fiction’ now refers? Because it seems to me that these two words mean entirely different things to different people. Depending on where you stand, ‘literary fiction’ can either mean ‘stuffy pretentious books by middle class white guys that nobody actually enjoys reading’ or ‘the sort of middlebrow realism that tends to win the Booker prize’. Astonishingly, these statements even seem to refer to the same authors. Are the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes excessively bookish and cerebral, or is the mere suggestion that anyone might think this symptomatic of a more general dumbing down of literary culture, as recently argued (sort of) by Gabriel Josipovici?

For Josipovici, it isn’t really the likes of Amis and McEwan who are the problem. The problem is that a highly conservative and above all commercialised literary culture upholds their sanitised and derivative novels as great works of art. In a sense, I’m inclined to agree. Every era has its popular novelists and no doubt they have always been overrated in many people’s eyes. But the peculiarity of our current climate is the relentlessness of the commercial machinery that elevates a popular storyteller like McEwan into some sort of bastion for serious literary art. The commercial and the critical motives have never been so incestuously intertwined. In order to be ‘great’ or a ‘masterpiece’ (of which apparently dozens are now written every year) a book no longer has to tell us something new – it has to do so in a manner which is ‘entertaining’ and palatable to the masses.

Part of this surely stems from the market forces of ‘literary fiction’, a sort of rapidly expanding, upwardly mobile literary bourgeoisie. A common – and slightly lazy – caricature of current literary fiction is that it is essentially a rewrite of naïve Dickensian/Balzacian Victorian realist fiction, the sort of fat tome that supposedly – though I sometimes wonder if people who make this accusation have actually read Bleak House or Vanity Fair or Middlemarch – seeks to hold up a mirror to the world around it and doesn’t spend a single second questioning the appropriateness of its linguistic resources for doing so.

But is this really accurate? Does it really describe the sort of novel that Josipovici (albeit briefly – for those who have only read the reviews, his book is not, in fact, an extended polemic against Ian McEwan) rails against in What Ever Happened to Modernism? I think not. There’s something more complicated than this going on in – or at least going on behind – the works of the big ‘literary fiction’ writers whom Tom McCarthy disdains as the ‘copywriters for the concern of middlebrow humanism’. Not necessarily better, but more complicated.

More complicated because people can and do argue the opposite perspective – that these novels represent the integration into popular literary culture of modernist narrative techniques. An example of this is John Mullan (a UCL professor, no less), who wrote a piece in the Guardian not long ago about the prevalence of non-conventional (ie non 19th-century realist) narrative forms in contemporary ‘literary fiction’ practitioners. Novels like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, which is told backwards; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a Russian Doll of six elaborately embedded narratives; Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with its clever metafictional sting in the tail; AS Byatt’s Possession, with its postmodern playfulness. I mean, even Wolf Hall was written in the present tense. Is this not, in fact, a golden age in which narrative experimentation is more widely accepted than ever before?

‘Literary fiction’ states Mullan, has its origins in the works of John Fowles, who ‘showed that you can be self-consciously literary and still make money’, and was sparked by the monumental critical and commercial crossover success of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While I am inclined to come down on the Josipovici/McCarthy side of the fence, I think that by simplifying the debate into some sort of convenient binarism between straight 19th century fiction (bad) and modernism (good) we do ourselves few favours. This is a simplification that Josipovici avoids, but others do not. For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger seemed to me to relies upon a shallow caricature of ‘the conventional novel’ and a rehashing of the time-honoured foundations of modernism (an anxiety about language and form) that, as Josipovici argues, transcend its temporal manifestations (try reading Don Quixote).

Rather than just being a return to Victorian realism (though it also does this in certain ways) I would argue that literary fiction is, depending on your agenda, either the democratisation or the commercialisation of modernism. On the one hand (democratisation) a work like Martin Amis’ Money is an iconoclastic puncturing of the false idols of modernism, its privileged discourse, its arcane exclusivity, its psychological rigour (is it ultimately any more or less false and constructed than realism’s attentiveness to the ‘real world’?), and, a bit like the Angry Young Men led by his dad, brings it, unpretentiously, to a mass audience.

Or alternatively, Money is a glib, shallow work that uses some modernist party tricks that actually mean something quite serious in the hands of other practitioners, and deploys them in a show-offy manner that impresses a middlebrow audience and provides the sort of commercial fodder that allows Martin Amis to spank thousands of pounds on fancy dental work and bag £500,000 advances (eating his cake), while also being critically lauded by a commercially motivated popular literary press as a serious and significant author (having his cake).

Literary fiction is democratisation in that it has expanded the market, and therefore readership of (relatively) serious fiction. It is commercialisation in that it has squeezed out the genuine avant-garde and replaced it with a more streamlined version that will be more palatable to the masses and therefore sell more copies – it has pushed everything towards the middle. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller becomes Cloud Atlas, Mrs Dalloway becomes Saturday and Howard’s End becomes On Beauty. These aren’t so much novels that ventriloquise straight nineteenth century realism, as Diet Modernism: some of the superficial cleverness of a Woolf or a Forster without the calories.

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz

I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship between the title of a novel and its content. If there’s one thing that postmodern literature tells us, after all, it is that the act of naming – of claiming the right to narrate and define – is a political act and an exercise of power. And it seems to me that the majority of novel titles fall into one of a few loose categories that each come pre-loaded with a certain type of generic baggage and history. The name of a novel, after all, is usually the first thing we know about it. How far do names reflect content, and how far do they provide a lens through which we perceive its meaning and coherence?

Some examples. Many classics take the name of a character, like a portrait – King Lear; David Copperfield; Emma; Tom Jones; Ana Karenina; Madame Bovary etc. In doing so these novels direct the focus of their content, from before the very first sentence, towards the psychology of a central protagonist. We tune our reading to the wavelength of the bildungsroman, the kunstlerroman, the tragedy and so on, all kitted out with with their own particular codes and tropes, patterns and inevitabilities.

There are titles that refer our attention to an event or chain of events whose significance and causality they will explore: The Odyssey; The Illiad; The Adventures of Augie March; The Trial; The Life and Times of Michael K. Though these novels may concern themselves with a central protagonist, they imply from the outset that their focus is outward – on the sequence of events in which a character takes part – rather than inward, on the way they internalize those events.

Other novels define themselves by their thematic or philosophical concerns: War and Peace; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Crime and Punishment; Sense and Sensibility; Freedom. These tend to be novels with an essayistic function, the narrative constructed as a way of exploring an abstract subject. Dostoevsky calling his novel Crime and Punishment rather than Raskolnikov instructs us to universalize his actions and experience, placing our focus on the general rather than the particular.

Then there are statements that hold themselves up to be reinforced, ironized or contradicted by the narrative: Tender is the Night; In Cold Blood; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; For Whom the Bell Tolls. Or outward-looking, panoramic novels that provide a pre-definition of a society or condition that they aim to dissect: Vanity Fair; Underworld; Infinite Jest; The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Age of Innocence. Or those that take the name of a defining symbol contained within the narrative, which is in turn pre-identified for the reader as a synecdoche, marking symbolic trails out in advance: The Tin Drum; The Golden Bowl; Light in August; The Glass Bead Game; The Road; The Line of Beauty.

This is not to overstate the extent to which a name alone defines a narrative. How differently would we approach, say, Saul Bellow’s Herzog and The Adventures of Augie March if they were instead called Augie March and The Adventures of Herzog? Would we read The Adventures of Herzog as a postmodern pastiche of the classic American bildungsroman, subverting the idealism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin as a commentary on the fragmentation of the individual in contemporary America? Probably not (the odd undergraduate bullshit-merchant here or there notwithstanding), but the coherent outline we superimpose onto its content in retrospect might look a little more shaky without a name that holds it all together for us.

This fits into the general process by which we perceive and compartmentalize meaning. The name of a novel is the first link in a semiotic chain that extends through the aesthetics of the cover, the blurb and quotations on the sleeve, and the picture of the author (large or small, colour or black and white, brooding or smiling?) right through to the typeface and spacing of the text, that has a formative effect on the way we aggregate the meaning of the words that we read. After all, the ‘form’ of a novel is something that we often talk about as if it were concrete, but in practice we can only really comprehend it in the abstract. In fact, if we are to take Terry Eagleton’s droll definition of a novel as ‘a piece of prose fiction of a reasonable length’, then one of the few identifiable features that marks out a novel is that we can’t experience it all at once.

Everybody reads, sees or hears something different in a piece of art of any medium, but the process of reading a novel means that our reception of it is affected by chronology in a unique way. In a film or play, a piece of music or a short poem, the movement and chronology is mediated by the performance. Yet in a long prose narrative, each reader imposes, to a greater extent, his own chronology and experience on the act of reading. Even if we can read a novel in a single sitting – though in the vast majority of cases we don’t – we still only retain a subjectively reordered hierarchy of remembered events, passages, words, phrases or moods.

The nature of these fragments, and the way they link together to form a whole, is therefore never absolute. Each person necessarily experiences them in a different way, at a different pace, in a different frame of mind, and within the context of a personal vocabulary that determines the connotative meaning of the words themselves. The whole remains inaccessible. The actual nature of a novel is perpetually up for grabs.

The multiplicity of meanings inherent in literary texts is one of the cornerstones of deconstruction, but Wittold Gombrowicz, in his bizarre and hysterical novel Ferdydurke, anticipated many of its arguments in the 1930s. Ferdydurke is in a sense an examination – or collection of examinations – of how meaning is generated and imposed by preexistent structures and forms; from the cohesion of a literary narrative right down to the semiotics of our every gesture and expression. And, like Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable – another rehearsal of deconstruction’s major arguments in narrative form – the first form that it wriggles out of is that imposed by the baggage of the literary title (Ferdydurke is a Jabberwocky-esque nonsense word, and does not appear anywhere in the novel).

In his excellent non-fiction work Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera lists Gombrowicz, alongside Franz Kafka, Herman Broch and Robert Musil, as one of the four major novelists of the 20th Century. While Gombrowicz’s wild irreverence sets him apart from the austerity of much of the European Modernist tradition, perhaps accounting in part for his relative obscurity, Ferdydurke’s themes place it squarely within the Modernist canon. Following a preoccupation that runs through Proust and Kafka via Freud, Ferdydurke begins with the narrator awakening in a state of semi-consciousness that precedes the onset of his habitual persona:

“as I lay awake but still half-dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose – and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery”

This is a clear echo – albeit translated into Gombrowicz’s ribald and carnivalesque style – of the famous prelude to Marcel Proust’s A le recherché du temps perdu, much of which concerns a young Marcel’s sleep-induced outer-body reveries:

“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything would be moving around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would make an effort to construe the form which its tiredness took as an orientation of its various members, so as to induce from that where the wall lay and where the furniture stood, to piece together and give a name to the house in which it must be living”.

Like Kafka’s Josef K., Gombrowicz’z narrator awakens in this fluid state to be confronted with a profound change imposed upon him from outside – he is abducted by a schoolmaster and sent back to school, where he is returned to a state of primordial youthfulness. The style and effect of this narrative is extremely difficult to describe, as it is completely unlike anything else I have read – it wildly oscillates between bizarre slapstick, nonsensical exchanges of childish slang and made-up words, postmodern pastiche, and extended philosophical digressions: Lewis Carroll meets Flann O’Brian meets Proust shouted through a megaphone at Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sometimes this is intensely irritating (quite possibly deliberately so), but sometimes it is wildly perceptive.

The dynamic that seemingly governs this riot is the tension between form and chaos, wholeness and fragmentation. Gombrowicz is aware like few other authors I know of the illusory nature of coherence – both in literary texts and, by extension, in the forms and structures we use to make life comprehensible, and define ourselves and the world around us:

“do we create form or does form create us? We think we are the ones who construct it, but that’s an illusion, because we are, in equal measure, constructed by the construction. Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way towards the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks, fulfillment, it implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness”

In putting this philosophy into novelistic practice, Gombrowicz devises surreal scenarios. Just as any word turns into nonsense if you repeat it enough times on its own (thus separating it from the linguistic structure of which it is a part), in Gombrowicz the separation of any body part from the whole represents a threat to the fragile ontology of the individual. For example, in one chapter, a Professor of Synthetology has an intellectual duel with a Professor of High Analysis, specializing in ‘decomposition’. The latter vanquishes the former by simply naming individual body parts of the Professor of Synthetology’s wife – “The ear, the ear!”… Under the effect of these words the ear immediately came into focus and became lewd” – thus rending her metaphysical identity asunder and leaving her hospitalized. Though recounting the episode in these summary terms does no justice to the absolute insanity of Gombrowicz’s style and effects.

The sometimes irritating childishness of Gombrowicz’s style is borne out of a conviction that the forms and identities of adulthood are arbitrarily constructed and conceal a primordial flux of youthfulness that is our true underlying condition: “The child runs deep in everything”. This is also given a self-reflexive dimension in the form – or formlessness – of Gombrowicz’s fragmentary narrative. Just when it threatens to crystallise into a coherent whole, Gombrowicz will reel off into nonsense, pulling apart the meaning of his own narrative at its syntactic seams:

“And I ask you this in all seriousness and with total responsibility for my words, and likewise with the greatest respect for all your parts without exception, because I know you are all a part of Humanity, of which I am also a part, and that you partly take part in the part of something which is also a part and of which I am also in part a part, together with all the particles and parts of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts… Help!”

Like Beckett after him and Gertrude Stein before him, Gombrowicz strives to articulate something that precedes the arbitrary structures of language. But Gombrowicz does so with a childish sense of fun that means, though he is often infuriating, he never approaches their impenetrable depths. Whereas Beckett’s last recourse is despair, Gombrowicz’s is nonsense, face-pulling, riotousness and mirth. In fact, if you were to try to sum it up you would probably have to make up a word that sounds like the pre-linguistic, gurgled nonsense of a baby not yet initiated into the structures of meaning that hold together the adult world – something like Ferdydurke.